Attainment - 'Success is 95% about hard work and 5% talent'

29th November 2013 at 00:00
Make David Beckham your students' template, author says

It has been said that Alex Ferguson uses his fearsome temper to bend others' will to his own. And countless comedy skits paint David Beckham as good with his feet but lacking a certain incisiveness when it comes to his intellect.

So it was something of a surprise when Scottish headteachers were told that the former Manchester United football manager and player provided ideal examples for how to get the best out of students.

Award-winning author Matthew Syed set the caricatures to one side and told a gathering of education leaders that Beckham (pictured below) and Sir Alex were defined by the same quality that should be demanded of students: hard work.

Syed, a former Olympic-standard table tennis player turned writer and journalist, said that sport, education and banking were all "bedevilled by the idea of talent". But Manchester United provided a superb example of how to realise young people's potential, he told a conference in Stirling last week hosted by education leadership organisation Selmas.

"In the West we obsess about talent, but top sportsmen's success is 95 per cent about hard work and 5 per cent talent," Syed said. Many young footballers were so well paid and so used to sycophantic praise that they believed "they would drift to the top, buoyed by their innate brilliance", he added. They stopped trying as hard in training and their careers stalled.

But Sir Alex and his coaches, including fellow Scot Archie Knox, had for many years railed against such complacency, Syed said.

The author - whose book Bounce attempts to debunk the notion of innate talent - added that Sir Alex and Knox intuitively understood the pioneering work of Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck, which suggests that praising effort in young people makes them better able to learn than telling them they are clever. "They always praised the effort of young players; young players started to think effort was key," Syed said.

But the idea of rapid or instant success had now become so entrenched in our culture - typified by television programmes such as X Factor - that children often struggled to deal with setbacks, Syed explained. "Young people worship effortless performance and are embarrassed about the process through which they unlock their potential," he said.

Research shows that top ice skaters fall more often in training than mediocre skaters because they are not afraid to stretch their limits and try more ambitious jumps - and in doing so, they learn faster, according to Syed.

"Failure isn't a reason to give up - it's a challenge to adapt and grow," he said. He told the conference that teachers must never accept statements such as "I haven't got a brain for numbers", which betrayed an ignorance of the brain's adaptability.

"If it were true that this person just hasn't got what it takes to get to grips with algebra, what would be the point in bothering with them?" he asked.

The idea of practice and perseverance proving the key to success has also been explored by English-Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell. In his book Outliers, Gladwell introduces the "10,000 hour rule", saying that the secret to success in any particular field is practising for this length of time.

Syed, who was British number one in table tennis for almost 10 years and won three Commonwealth titles, used to attribute his own sporting success to innate talent until he came up against a former Wimbledon tennis champion.

He was interviewing Michael Stich and challenged him to a game of tennis, assuming that his naturally fast reactions would help him to return the ball. In fact, Syed missed Stich's serve every time - he discovered that he had learned skills specific to table tennis, which were of little use in another sport.

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